No silver bullets

Sacramento homelessness activists lobby city to repeal illegal-camping law, leaders urge people to focus on solutions

More than 1,000 homeless people were cited last year under the city’s illegal-camping ordinance.

More than 1,000 homeless people were cited last year under the city’s illegal-camping ordinance.

Is enforcement of the city’s anti-camping ordinance out of control?

That’s what many homelessness activists are saying this week at City Hall. And they’re armed with numbers.

Last year, for instance, city police and park rangers cited 1,030 homeless individuals for “illegal camping,” a misdemeanor that comes with a $230 fine. So far this year, there were 108 citations in January, only 18 in February, and another 56 as of March 12. This in addition to fines for light-rail, bike and pedestrian infractions.

While the truth behind these numbers remains uncertain, their magnitude is turning heads.

“It’s an ugly policy for dealing with homeless people. And it’s costing the city money,” argued Delphine Brody, an activist and regular speaker at Tuesday city council meetings.

The city’s anti-camping law makes it illegal for an individual to camp or possess “camp paraphernalia” on public or private property. (Your kids are still allowed to camp out on a summer night in your backyard—but for one night only.)

Activists were scheduled to petition city council this past Tuesday night to repeal the anti-camping ordinance, or at least put a moratorium on enforcement. That’s not going to happen, however, and city leaders hope to redirect these activists’ focus from enforcement and onto solutions.

“My goal is that this group of individuals will become partners” in the effort to end homelessness, said Councilman Jay Schenirer, the city’s de facto leader on poverty issues.

A worthy goal, and perhaps even one that is mutual. But although both sides probably have more in common than they realize, they remain at odds.

Homelessness ‘triage’

The anti-camping ordinance works like this: If law enforcement encounters an individual camping—this could be sleeping in a park, as per the ordinance’s language—they’re cited under City Code 12.52.030. It’s not an infraction, which could result in a fine, but a misdemeanor, which could result in criminal jail time.

Mark Merin, who has sued the city over the anti-camping ordinance and is currently working on an appeal, says that police cite so many homeless people that the courts and district attorney physically “can’t prosecute all the people that are cited.”

That’s where Ronald Blubaugh comes in. He volunteers legal services at the Tommy Clinkenbeard Legal Clinic inside Loaves & Fishes, where homeless people who’ve been cited by law enforcement can go for help. The clinic is a joint venture with Legal Services of Northern California and the Sacramento County public defender’s office.

Most of the volunteers’ work at the clinic is spent converting tickets and fines into community-service hours. “Every time I’m in there, there are people coming in with their tickets,” he said.

The majority of citations are for riding light rail without paying a fare, but the second most common are misdemeanor citations under the anti-camping ordinance. There are also numerous tickets for jaywalking and “every kind of bicycle and pedestrian infraction you can think of,” Blubaugh said.

Homeless people who receive an infraction have to trek out to the Carol Miller Justice Center, near Folsom Boulevard and Power Inn Road. “But it’s really hard for homeless people to go to Carol Miller,” Blubaugh explained, so people either fail to appear—and in turn get a bench warrant for their arrest. One way or another, they often end up at the clinic.

Every $100 in fines translates to six hours of community service. Last year, people who came through the clinic performed 11,312 hours at Loaves & Fishes alone (they also do hours at Volunteers of America, the homelessness center at the former Mather Air Force Base, The Salvation Army and other locations). That’s more than $188,000 in fines avoided.

He likens his work with homeless people to that of an emergency-room doctor. “What we do, it’s just sort of triage,” he said.

“The wounds are all of their tickets.”

Is it harassment?

Homelessness activist Brody is a leader in the effort to repeal the anti-camping ordinance. She has many homeless friends who’ve been fined under it, and says even the process of getting them dropped and performing community service amounts to a form of harassment.

“That’s still an undue burden on homeless people,” she said.

Paula Lomazzi, with the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, agrees. “I don’t think there should be laws against people living outdoors. We need to refocus our efforts helping them find housing and get off the streets.”

This past Tuesday, Lomazzi and other activists convened at the Capitol to support a new Right To Rest Law, known inside the building at Senate Bill 608. This bill addresses laws similar to Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinance. Its author, Senator Carol Liu, wrote that she’s pushing the new law because “it’s time to address poverty, mental health, and the plight of the homeless head-on as a social issue and not a criminal issue.”

Liu cited a recent report by the UC Berkeley School of Law Policy Advocacy Clinic. This study shows that the number of anti-homelessness laws passed in California rose significantly in recent years. “In total, the 58 cities researched in the study have enacted at least 500 anti-homeless [laws]—nearly nine laws per city on average,” she wrote.

Blubaugh, who sees victims of these laws firsthand at the legal center each week, agrees that the new policies are “incredibly unfair.”

“It punishes people for sleeping. It’s ridiculous, the ordinance is ridiculous,” he said.

He also points out that it’s not cheap to cite all these people and divert them into community service—only to see them back out on the streets. He calls it a vicious cycle. “How much money goes into this business, all the police officers that have to go around patrolling for homeless people, and all the court time dealing with homeless people?”

The Sacramento Police Department would not discuss the illegal-camping ordinance with SN&R.

Councilman Schenirer, who provided this paper with the data on citations, says he’s looking closely at the law’s enforcement. He also hopes to take a ride-along with police to see first-hand how it is enforced.

The bigger picture

The illegal-camping ordinance debate was part of a larger homelessness discussion this week at City Hall. And, depending where you sat, the glass was either half empty or half full.

On one end of the debate were local poverty activists. They’re not happy with the city’s efforts to get people into housing.

Meanwhile, on the other end are local electeds and homelessness advocates. Their goal is to educate these relentless activists on the programs that the city and county recently have implemented. They also want to bring activists to the table. But they don’t yet want to discuss a repeal of any laws that allegedly criminalize homeless people.

This homelessness showdown actually began months ago, when the activists started appearing at Tuesday night city council meetings. Each week. After week after week.

And even before meetings, when they’d show up on Ninth Street outside City Hall and serve free meals to hungry people—which violates the city ordinance against nonpermitted public feedings.

“I kind of admire them a lot, keeping this up, and also serving food,” says Lomazzi. “They’re keeping city council members’ minds on it.”

And they’ve had an impact: Council members Schenirer and Jeff Harris have met not once, but three times with the activist contingent in recent weeks. And, this past Tuesday, April 7, the city had scheduled an hourlong discussion on homelessness as part of the weekly city-council agenda.

The city’s goal at the meeting was to outline all the programs and services that address regional homelessness issues. They invited representatives from Sacramento Steps Forward, the lead coordinator on homelessness matters, and others to testify on what they’re doing.

The city had a budget surplus of $17 million this past fiscal year, of which it has spent approximately $11 million. Schenirer is hoping for $500,000 to spend on homelessness, as part of Steps Forward’s strategic plan. Initially, the number hoped for was $1.7 million.

But Schenirer reminded that the city is not a homelessness safety net. “The city should not become a provider of services for the homelessness,” he told SN&R.

Nevertheless, the city did hire a homeless services coordinator, Emily Halcon, who just started in January.

Halcon reiterated that one of the big goals of the city is to be more efficient about homelessness and not duplicate what other organizations—be it the county, Steps Forward, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Association—are doing.

“Homelessness is not bound by jurisdiction,” she reminded. “What’s different than before is that we have one coordinated outreach system.”

This new system is called Common Cents. The goal of this program is “Housing First,” and it’s a little different than what has been done before in that the goal is to make sure groups are all on the same page. Steps Forward is the lead on Common Cents.

So far, the Common Cents has contacted nearly 400 homeless individuals in the city and county, according to Steps Forward. Of this number, 310 have taken an assessment interview, which helps them match up with the appropriate housing needs and services. Only 30 people have been placed into emergency housing, and 14 into permanent housing.

Overall, Steps Forward placed 163 individuals in housing through its continuum of care this year.

There are a total of 474 emergency shelter beds in the city, 525 transitional-housing beds and 1,538 permanent supportive housing units.

Steps Forward executive director Ryan Loofbourrow, who was roundly praised at Tuesday’s city council meeting, told SN&R that the new approach with Common Cents is modeled after other cities such as Salt Lake City. “I compare the system of what we did before to a hospital without triage or an ER. There was no front door,” he explained.

Now, everyone’s working in coordination, and when they encounter homeless people, they know where to direct them and how to do it. “The outreach team is amazing because it permeates through geography, county and city,” Loofbourrow said.

Activists are critical of Common Cents, saying it’s not sufficient to address the thousands of homeless or housing insecure, and that it’s not swift or inclusive enough in its efforts.

Loofbourrow wants them to know that he can sympathize. “I don’t disagree with people one bit. We can’t be business as usual and just plod along.”

Not all activists are as frustrated. Lomazzi commended Steps Forward for doing a “wonderful” job and called Common Cents a “great program.”

“The obstacle is that government does not move as quickly as people would like,” Schenirer said of these complaints. But, he also reminded, Common Cents is very much in its nascent phase.

Meanwhile, challenges persist. The councilman says his office is getting more and more calls about people camping in parks. And, he added, 12 percent of Sacramento Police Department calls are about transient and homelessness problems.

Solutions? He likes the idea of partnering with the homeless community, such as hiring homeless individuals who can take care of public and park restrooms. “I think that’s a great idea,” Schenirer said.

“There’s no silver bullets here,” he added. But he and others are sincerely working on solutions. “I do want to live in a community that is compassionate and takes care of its own.”